The Review’s writers round up the year’s finest fiction across a multitude of genres and also look ahead to what they hope will be a memorable literary 2014
Unlike 2012, 2013 was low on releases from heavyweight authors, but this was no bad thing, as it meant there were more surprises for the reader from breakthrough or unknown writers.
Trieste by Daša Drndic was an outstanding debut novel with Sebaldian undertones about the Nazi occupation of northern Italy. Drndic blended fact and fiction and incorporated photos, maps and lists of Jewish deportees to produce a harrowing, affecting and gripping reading experience. Submergence by J M Ledgard flitted between a kidnapped spy in Somalia and a scientist exploring the depths of the ocean; a third strand covered their romance in a snowbound French hotel; powerful prose with lyrical flurries and characters that mattered kept me entranced. Two established writers continued to work wonders: John le Carré’s A Delicate Truthand Javier Marías’s The Infatuations proved that certain old masters are still rich with ideas and the talent to express them.
In 2014, I’m looking forward to Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, because Open City was a stunningly original debut; Andrew’s Brain by E L Doctorow, because a new novel is long overdue; and Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis, because few contemporary writers can craft a better short story. Finally, Iron Gustav and Tales from the Underworld by Hans Fallada and Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal will see the welcome return from the grave of two quirky European literary geniuses.
* Malcolm Forbes
The two tomes towering above all others in 2013 are Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries – a Victorian pastiche set in the New Zealand goldfields, the plot dictated by the alignment of the stars – and Donna Tartt’s long anticipated third novel The Goldfinch – a twisting, Dickensian tale of a young man’s life in the aftermath of a violent loss. I’d add to these Evie Wyld’s second novel, All the Birds, Singing – the brutal, beautiful story of a loner haunted by a closely guarded secret. Three debuts also stood out: Kate Clanchy’s Meeting the English, a hot Hampstead summer in 1989 seen through the eyes of a young, provincial Scot; Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights, the fictionalised account of the crime and trial of the last woman to be executed in Iceland; and Andrew Porter’s In Between Days, depicting a dysfunctional American family at breaking point.
Looking ahead to 2014, keep an eye out for Cornelius Medvei’s The Partisan – the term “quirky little gem” could have been invented for his novels. I also have high hopes for Kamila Shamsie’s (one of Granta’s 2013 Best of Young British Novelists) A God in Every Stone, Rachel Seiffert’s The Walk Home and Siri Hustvedt’s story of an embittered female artist convinced that her gender has crippled her career, The Blazing World. I’ve already devoured my proof copy of Harriet Lane’s Her, a glorious study of jealousy and revenge. And, last but not least, there’s the new Sarah Waters offering, The Paying Guests, to look forward to in the autumn.
* Lucy Scholes
Has pastiche in fiction become the new noir? This year saw three eminently readable rip-offs of three literary giants. To call them rip-offs is, on reflection, unjust. To imitate a master well calls for a supreme knowledge of and sympathy for the original, as well as an ability to remind the reader of the magnificence of the original. “Reader” is used advisedly, because any attempt at replicating a literary legend will not remind but simply enrage a fanatical follower.
So the publication this year of Longbourn by Jo Baker, Solo by William Boyd and Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks could have brought respective scorn from Janeites, Bond aficionados and Wodehouse worshippers. But, for this reader, each of these novels managed, in quite distinct ways, to evoke the magic of Jane Austen, Ian Fleming and P G Wodehouse. By rewriting Pride and Prejudice from downstairs in Longbourn and conveying this great romance through the eyes of Sarah, the Bennets’ maid, Baker has shown that she too can perform splendidly on the little bit (two-inches-wide) of ivory on which Austen worked.
Boyd has joined a long line of distinguished novelists entrusted by the Fleming Estate with the 007 franchise and in Solo he has shown that there is life in the old dog yet. Perhaps the trickiest task of all is recreating Wooster’s world – Wodehouse’s adventures of the Edwardian boulevardier, Bertie Wooster, and his consummate valet, Jeeves. Faulks succeeded sublimely.
Next year, Sophie Hannah will resurrect Agatha Christie’s Poirot while Curtis Sittenfield will produce a modern take on Pride and Prejudice. If they’re as good as this year’s trio of tributes, they will be worth devouring.
* Mark McGinness
My reading habits confuse Amazon.com: “serious” fiction, thrillers, memoirs and graphic novels. It’s hard to know what will seize my interest and so I usually have several books going at once.
This year, Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints was a graphic novel that shows us the 1899 Boxer Rebellion in China from two different vantage points: that of a boy who grows up to be a leader of the rebellion and a girl who wants to become Joan of Arc. I loved this book and so did my 13-year-old son.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, seems like a typical story of an expatriate attempting to return “home” after a long absence, but her heroine’s journey from contemporary Nigeria to the United States and back again is anything but ordinary: it’s funny, profound and complex, but not ordinary.
In 2014, I’m waiting for a guilty pleasure: The Book of Life, the conclusion to Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, which could be described as the thinking-person’s Twilight series. The book is due out in July and will be a perfect summertime read.
* Deborah Lindsay Williams
This year, I’ve been thinking about what we might call the speculative impulse behind fiction. Could it be that one of the things that makes “literary” fiction literary is its ability to get its readers to speculate, to ask: “What if …?” or “What would it be like to be …?” “Speculative fiction” is a category that includes not only science-fiction, but also any texts that ask us to engage in thought experiments that pose “What if ...?” questions. The category thus includes texts from political theory, utopian and dystopian narratives and even works considered to be “realist” in their orientation.
The Big Aha, a wild and woolly tour of the not-so-distant future from the cyberpunk science-fiction writer Rudy Rucker, was clearly a work of speculative fiction: it asked: “What if we lived in a world in which all technology was biological, there were a substance called “qwet” [short for “quantum wetware”] that can make you telepathic and space aliens were real?” But so was Bleeding Edge, the latest novel from the mysterious “literary” writer Thomas Pynchon, a pseudo-detective novel set in New York just after the September 11 attacks. Like all of his novels, it asked us to think about the relationships among freedom and constraint, order and entropy, and significance and meaninglessness.
For next year, I’m looking forward to further speculation, aided in January by Andrew’s Brain from the “literary” novelist E L Doctorow, and, in the early autumn, by Spark, the latest from the mysterious science-fiction writer John Twelve Hawks.
* Cyrus Patell
Among the best books that I read this past year, I would have to start with Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. I think that this was a significant novel, deeply affecting and fiendishly clever. It’s a salute to literary craftsmanship and the endless directions in which a writer’s imagination can take the reader. While it remains chilling in its realism, it’s inspiringly experimental and sat in a class of its own.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is a novel that explores the theme of dislocation. Despite her predictable, often regurgitated themes, I found that, for me, the book stood out for its deeply poetic sensitivity. Lahiri’s unique voice and observations of diaspora life was often uncomfortable, but that’s simply because it is painfully real.
Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed was yet another multilayered narrative from the now much-applauded author. Spanning generations of an Afghan family and shifting between rural and urban landscapes, his narrative remained in this, his third and much-awaited novel, which was nothing short of masterful. It’s an expansive novel filled with fierce love, dark tragedy and his trademark gift of storytelling and plot twists. Originality, lyrical prose and the depiction of human frailty are all packaged neatly in this essential read.
Finally, I would like to mention Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, a beautiful, passionate novel about love and the fragility of human bonds in the face of the devastation brought about by war. This was a thought-provoking book offering many dimensions. Aslam’s prose was exquisitely turned, both cynical and insightful, as he offered us the most telling glimpses into the intricacies of war-ravaged lives.
Books to look forward to in 2014 would be the new Hanif Kureishi book, The Last Word; Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone is also one to look out for, and, who knows, we might just get lucky and be blessed with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Girl.
* Erika Banerji